South Georgia Newsletter, february 2014

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- Disclaimer: This newsletter is not produced by GSGSSI; it does not necessarily reflect their views.

Main Phase Of Landmark Reindeer Eradication Project Over

After many years of planning, and two field seasons on the ground, the main part of the GSGSSI Reindeer Eradication Project is now all but done. Commissioner Nigel Haywood said: “This represents a very important landmark in our efforts to safeguard the native fauna of South Georgia.”

Six expert marksmen from the Norwegian Nature Inspectorate (SNO) spent several weeks, up to mid-February, working on the removal of the remaining deer on the Barff Peninsula. The marksman were based in tented field camps and supported by the GSGSSI fisheries patrol vessel the Pharos SG. Despite challenging terrain and some of the worst summer weather in recent years, the marksmen completed systematic searches of all areas with reindeer and shot 3,140 more animals on the Barff over the six-week period this year. Due to a lack of alternative travel options, all the marksmen had to leave together instead of having a smaller party remain for a further two weeks to recheck cleared areas. As a result at least eight reindeer are known to remain and will be dealt with in the coming months.

Reindeer were introduced to the island in the early 1900s as a source of sport and fresh meat for the whalers and their removal will lead to a rapid recovery of vegetation and improved habitat for breeding birds. Reindeer are voracious grazers and have had a devastating impact on the island’s vegetation, with knock-on effects on native burrowing seabird communities. One of the concerns, had the herds been allowed to remain longer, was the risk, due to retreating glaciers, that they may extend their range into new areas. Reindeer numbers had increased dramatically since the initial introduction of a few tens of reindeer in the early 1900s. The Reindeer Eradication Project saw the humane removal of over 6,600 reindeer from the island. (See January newsletter for more background to this project.)

A reindeer on badly eroded ground.
A reindeer on badly eroded ground.

The combined cost of phase I and II of the eradication was around £900,000 and was funded by GSGSSI. Some of those costs were offset by the sale of meat products recovered during the first phase of the operation.

Alongside the work to remove reindeer, several scientific research projects were undertaken, including the collection of samples for genetic analysis and filming for behavioural research. Science teams have also continued to monitor vegetation and bird communities to track the recovery of the island’s systems after the eradication and, although it will take a number of years for the full benefits of the eradication to be realised, there are early signs of vegetation recovery in the Busen area, which has now been free from reindeer for almost a year.

The eradication of reindeer is one of a number of projects that are designed to safeguard the native species, habitats and landscape of the unique environment of South Georgia. With the main phase of the reindeer eradication complete, the way is now open for the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) to begin the third and final phase of their rat eradication project in 2015.

GSGSSI Chief Executive Martin Collins, said: ”The combination of reindeer and rat eradications will help return South Georgia to a more natural state. We expect to see a rapid recovery in vegetation, invertebrate populations and, in particular, ground nesting birds.”

Commissioner Nigel Haywood Leaves

Photo Falkland Radio.
Photo Falkland Radio.

Commissioner Nigel Haywood CVO completed his tenure in February, having been in post since October 2010.

The Commissioner is also the Governor of the Falkland Islands and to mark his departure a parade was held in Stanley where he and Mrs Haywood took both the Royal and a 17 gun salute; as part of the ceremony Nigel Haywood handed over the Governor’s sword for safe-keeping until the Governor Designate is sworn in. His successor, Colin Roberts CVO, is expected to take up his post in late April.

In the interim, John Duncan OBE has been designated acting Commissioner of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands and acting Governor of the Falkland Islands.

Mr Duncan has considerable previous experience of the region and is currently attached to the Overseas Territories Directorate of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). He was previously Deputy and then acting Head of the former South Atlantic Dependant Territories and Antarctic Department from 1996-98. Mr Duncan said he was looking forward to his temporary position in the South Atlantic.

Regarding the long gap between the Commissioners, a Government House spokesperson commented, “succession planning for senior overseas postings is complex. It is rarely possible to synchronise arrivals and departures precisely, which is why there are standard procedures to cover any interregnum.”

The outgoing Commissioner has overseen some major and important changes in South Georgia including the creation of a vast Marine Protected Area, the removal of the introduced reindeer, and the start of the ambitious rodent eradication project being carried out by the SGHT. Nigel Haywood is now retiring, returning to his home in Dorset, UK. For the future he is planning to do a PhD and is also looking forward to having more time for his hobbies which include fishing, running and playing the bassoon.

Mr Duncan is looking forward to his temporary position in the South Atlantic. Photo Mercopress.
Mr Duncan is looking forward to his temporary position in the South Atlantic. Photo Mercopress.

Fishing And Shipping News

Two trawlers were fishing for mackerel icefish in South Georgia waters during February. Catches were poor and both vessels had departed by mid-month.

In the quietest month of this tourist season there were just six cruise ship visits to Grytviken during February. Three large charter yachts also called in - Hans Hansson was on charter to a BBC film crew and Hans Explorer and Asteria were both on a charter to a film-maker and photographer and his paying guests. Four other smaller private yachts were also around the island, including a 20.5m yacht Elinca built specifically for the BT global challenge; the boat had a crew of 14, in contrast to the smaller singlehanded yacht Saltash.

Cruise ship off Prion Island. Photo Sally Poncet.
Cruise ship off Prion Island. Photo Sally Poncet.

Shackleton’s Epic, The World’s Greatest Survival Journey

Following the recently televised documentary on last year’s ‘Shackleton Epic’ expedition, comes a book on the expedition. The hardback book ‘Shackleton’s Epic, Recreating the World’s Greatest Survival Journey’ was published in January.

The expedition was trying to reconstruct the sections of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition where Shackleton and five of his men sailed the tiny James Caird lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and then crossed the island to Stromness whaling station, to fetch help for the remaining expedition members stuck on Elephant Island. The men had reached the tenuous safety of Elephant Island in three lifeboats following the crushing of the expedition’s ship Endurance in the ice of the Weddell Sea.

The reconstruction of the journey entailed an 800 nautical miles sail across the Southern Ocean in a 23-foot boat followed by a 35 kilometre trek across South Georgia’s heavily glaciated mountains. Expedition leader Tim Jarvis took on the challenge following a request by Shackleton’s granddaughter Alexandra.

According to an early review of the book, “the story of their journey is bone-chilling at the least and breathtakingly frightening…..The author’s description of icy seas soaking the crew as they tried to sleep like sardines in the hold is not reading for the claustrophobic. Surely it was difficult enough to attempt this voyage, but as they accomplished it without modern (waterproof) clothing or navigational aids, it was a most remarkable feat.”

Written by Tim Jarvis, the 272 page book, published by Morrow/HarperCollins, is currently advertised for £16.75 on Amazon. ISBN.978-0-00-754952-8

The Unseen Battle Of the Springtails

Soil samples being processed in Husvik Villa. Photo Sally Poncet.
Soil samples being processed in Husvik Villa. Photo Sally Poncet.

A group of four terrestrial ecologists based in Australia visited South Georgia and were taking a keen interest in some of the smaller South Georgia wildlife.

For three weeks they collected soil samples from a variety of locations and analysed the invertebrate life within. One group of interest were the springtails; an animal halfway between a crustacean and an insect. Springtails are one of the most numerous invertebrates on the planet. The variety of springtails on South Georgia is remarkable - they are found in almost every habitat from freshwater pools to peaty soils, and from sea-level to high altitude. They include both native-endemic and invasive species. The tail-like structure, called a furca, is the ‘spring’ in their name and is a powerful limb that can propel them huge distances in proportion to their size, a mechanism they employ to move away from predators. Some springtails, especially those that live in deeper layers of the soil have adapted to hardly have this feature at all. Springtails are decomposers, feeding on algae and fungi and the effect of their feeding can add nutrients, helping to create soil and improving plant growth. The animals are very abundant and in some areas can be up to 10,000 per m2. The scientists are interested in the range, variety, population levels and interactions between springtail species and the plant communities in which they live. Twenty different species of springtails have been found on South Georgia so far, most of which are endemic….and excitingly the chance of finding a new species is high. The science group think they may have already found one springtail new to science during this visit.

One of the springtails collected on South Georgia, clearly showing the jumping mechanism, called a furca.
One of the springtails collected on South Georgia, clearly showing the jumping mechanism, called a furca.

The group have worked on many other sub-Antarctic islands, and have found that whilst there are some broad similarities, each has its own unique suite of species and habitats. Unlike introduced reindeer, rodents and flowering plants, some of these smaller invasive species are easily overlooked and little is know about their distribution across the island.

The scientists predict that the introduction of pollinators like blowflies and hover flies, which have only been recorded in recent decades and which add a whole new interaction to the ecosystem, may have a substantial impact on the island’s ecology. Hover flies for instance are often associated with the introduced dandelion and may be aiding the pollination and spread of other invasive flowering plants.. One of the scientists, Steven Chown, had worked on South Georgia during the 1990’s and noticed the abundance of local tussac beetles and introduced carabid beetles has changed enormously. The introduced species has become much more abundant in many environments, but in response, it appears that the local tussac beetle is responding by growing bigger. The larger tussac beetles cannot be grasped by the carabid beetles’ jaws, and so are literally getting too big to be eaten.

The scientists sampled in a variety of sites, taking 200 soil samples in each. The samples were then suspended on frames for five days so the fauna within the sample migrated into the collecting jars beneath, the fauna will be analysed later.

It would be almost impossible to eradicate an introduced invertebrate so scientists will be interested to see how the presence of these exogenous species influence ecosystem function on South Georgia especially in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

Old Graves, New Crosses For Ocean Harbour

A recent photograph of Ocean Harbour cemetery with the remains of the original wooden crosses.
A recent photograph of Ocean Harbour cemetery with the remains of the original wooden crosses.

The GSGSSI builders have made some replica crosses to replace those that have been lost or are in poor condition at the small cemetery at Ocean Harbour. There are just six graves in the cemetery at this old whaling station, which is situated on the northern coast of the Barff Peninsula. The original crosses and other grave markers are either absent of severely degraded after many decades without maintenance.

It is expected that the graves will become harder to distinguish now reindeer have been removed from the area as the vegetation is expected to recover, and so markers have been placed where the new crosses will be installed early next summer.

Old photographs along with measurements of the remains of any original crosses were used to establish precise measurements so that the replacement wooden crosses will be faithful replicas of the originals.

You can see in the old photograph below that whale bones were sometimes used to mark graves. These bones can still be found by the grave but have long since fallen down.

An old photograph of two of the graves at Ocean Harbour shows floral tributes in boxes and whale bones used to mark one of the graves, as well as the original wooden crosses that will be replaced.
An old photograph of two of the graves at Ocean Harbour shows floral tributes in boxes and whale bones used to mark one of the graves, as well as the original wooden crosses that will be replaced.

The Maritime History Of South Georgia

Review By Albert-Friedrich Gruene

In July 2013 The SGHT issued an attractive 32 page full colour booklet with the title “The Maritime History of South Georgia” (ISBN-978-09564546-2-1).

Only 1000 copies have been printed by publisher WildGuides. It cost 5 GBP and is available from the SGHT website: http:/ and from the South Georgia Museum.

The author, Robert Burton, first visited South Georgia in 1964. In the summer of 1971/72 he studied albatrosses at Bird Island and from 1995 to 1999 he was Director of the Whaling Museum at Grytviken. Since that time he visited South Georgia every year while lecturing on history on cruise ships. He is also the editor of the newsletter of the South Georgia Association (

The history of South Georgia is maritime. It is a remote sub-Antarctic island that can be reached only by sea, so it is the history of seafaring people who have visited the island as explorers, sealers, whalers, fishermen and scientists.

Now many more people are visiting as passengers on cruise ships. This small book is a superb introduction to the history of South Georgia from the perspective of the vessels that have sailed and, occasionally come to a grief, in its stormy waters. It includes detailed descriptions of ships and boats that can still be seen as wrecks, abandoned hulks or on display. I can only recommend it to everybody who has an interest in the maritime history of South Georgia and likes to get a competent and quick overview of the main events.

Bird Island Diary

By Stephanie Winnard, Albatross Zoological Field Assistant at the BAS Research Station at Bird Island.

The main event of the month was the BBC arriving aboard the Hans Hansson to film for the children’s nature show ‘Deadly 60’. Steve Backshall arrived with a team of eight to find the “deadliest” of the island’s animals including fur seals, giant petrels, brown skuas and wandering albatrosses. Having the film crew on the island doubled the Bird Island population, and it was a busy three days accompanying the crew around the island and ensuring they got the footage they needed. Before they left for the South Georgia mainland we had a BBQ on the beach, much to the local bird population’s delight. When having a Bird Island BBQ nothing can be left uncovered, otherwise it won’t be long before a cheeky skua is flying away with a sausage.

The whole team have had a busy seal month having completed the second pup weighing session, and tagging over 200 seal pups that were born on the special study beach so that they can be identified if they return in later years. Hannah and Cian have nearly completed removing transmitters from females that were attached shortly after giving birth. These devices show when the seals are on the island and allow us to calculate how long their foraging trips have been throughout the season. Some of these females have now have TDRs (time depth recorders) which also contain a GLS (Global Location Sensors, that use daylength to determine position), so that we can find out where they travel to, and how deep and long they dive whilst feeding.

Hopefully Cian will be able to retrieve the TDR’s next season when the females return to pup. An unusual visitor was seen on the island this month, a male sub-Antarctic fur seal. These are rare visitors to South Georgia and are usually found on distant islands including Crozet and Tristan de Cunha.

A male sub-Antarctic fur seal. Photo by Cian Luck.
A male sub-Antarctic fur seal. Photo by Cian Luck.

After an incubation length of 77 days the first wandering albatross chick hatched on the 25th February. Jess and I are now doing daily visits to the Wanderer Ridge study area to determine each chicks hatching date, as well as visiting all of the nests on the island for which we have not confirmed both parents’ identities. It is keeping us fit as it requires a lot of hiking around the island to visit the 800 or so nests.

Newly hatched wandering albatross chick. Photo by Stephanie Winnard.
Newly hatched wandering albatross chick. Photo by Stephanie Winnard.

Following Jerry’s absence from the island he has been very busy catching up with the penguin and giant petrel work. The whole team helped out weighing gentoo penguin chicks, as well as counting all of the chicks on the island. One of the chicks weighed was an isabelline gentoo, which is a rare genetic mutation, normally we only see a couple each year. The macaroni penguin chick weighing and tagging session was also completed, and left the base reeking of penguin for days afterwards. If the chicks return to Little Mac in a couple of years 100 of them will now be identifiable from their tag.

Isabelline gentoo penguin chick trying to blend in with the other chicks. Photo by Jerry Gillham.
Isabelline gentoo penguin chick trying to blend in with the other chicks. Photo by Jerry Gillham.

It has been a bad season for the southern giant petrels with almost all of the nests in the study area failing at egg stage. One of the remaining chicks has a white morph mother, and has inherited this trait. This is the first white morph chick that any of us have seen on the island, as the trait is not always inherited.

It was sad news for the giant petrel chick that was being fostered by a wandering albatross when it was found dead this month. Clearly a wanderer was no substitute for the chick’s actual parents.

White morph Southern giant petrel chick. Photo by Stephanie Winnard.
White morph Southern giant petrel chick. Photo by Stephanie Winnard.

A search and rescue exercise was conducted which involved almost everyone on base and was organised by the technical team. The scenario was locating and rescuing a casualty with a broken leg and suspected punctured lung from up the hill over difficult terrain. Living on such a remote island without a doctor means it is vitally important that we all know what to do in an emergency situation.

It is now only a week until last call when the RRS Ernest Shackleton will arrive to pick up all of the summer staff and outgoing winterers, including Hannah and myself. After spending a fantastic 16 months on the island we will both be very sad to leave this special place, and will miss all of the animals and people that make it such an amazing place to live and work.


South Georgia Snippets

Rodent Incursion Exercise: An exercise to practice what would be done to counter an introduction of rats was held at King Edward Point (KEP). The area around King Edward Cove was cleared of rodents during the first phase of the SGHT rat eradication project but is the most likely place where a new introduction of rodents might occur in the future due to Cumberland Bay being the main harbour on the island. Cargo is also regularly off loaded at the KEP jetty, and smaller vessels occasionally come alongside. Although all ships which visit South Georgia have measures in place to help ensure they are not carrying rats, there is still a small chance that one could slip ashore.

GSGSSI have developed the rodent incursion response plan to ensure they have the equipment and training to react if rodents are found in future. For the exercise the BAS science base members worked with the GSSSI team to practice setting out a baiting grid and simulated bait laying.

Deadly Pole to Pole: "The BBC were recently in Grytviken filming for a children's television programme called "Deadly Pole to Pole" presented by Steve Backshall. They were given permission to film at Bird Island and at Grytviken they were keen to film the seal skulls in the South Georgia Museum collection, focusing on a leopard seal skull. They also borrowed an elephant seal skull from elsewhere to film on the beach at KEP. The team were updating web diaries during their filming in the south, you can read them at:"

The BBC film crew filming giant petrels and skuas feeding on a seal carcass at Bird Island. Photo by Stephanie Winnard.
The BBC film crew filming giant petrels and skuas feeding on a seal carcass at Bird Island. Photo by Stephanie Winnard.

Older Wanderers Head South: A paper in the journal Ecology has highlighted changes in the places where the very long lived wandering albatrosses go to feed as they age. Apparently immature wandering albatrosses of both sexes forage in the subtropics. Adult females forage in more northern latitudes than males but males showed a unique pattern among birds and mammals of a continuous change with age in their main feeding habitat by foraging progressively further south in colder water. You can find out more here.

Builders Progress on Heritage Buildings: The GSGSSI building team have continued their work on several major building in Grytviken this month. Boards covering windows on the Engineering Workshops, Main Store and Nybrakka have either been replaced or the windows reglazed. The result gives the old whaling station a surprisingly different feel. They have also stripped and repainted the huge wooden three-storey Nybrakka, an old whalers’ barracks that is being restored to provide additional storage and possibly accommodation.

An unusual photograph of a pipit jumping between two rocks highlights their relatively long legs and long toes. Photo Jen Lee.
An unusual photograph of a pipit jumping between two rocks highlights their relatively long legs and long toes. Photo Jen Lee.

Pipit Sightings Log: With many more reports of pipits being seen on the main island following the SGHT Habitat Restoration Project (rodent eradication), the South Georgia Museum has started up a pipit sightings log to encourage people to record where birds have been seen. The log may help to show the pattern of the birds’ redistribution around the main island in the wake of the removal of the rats.

Pipits cannot breed where rats are present, so, until recently, have been mainly confined to small rat-free offshore islands and the rat free areas of the main island which are mainly on the southern coast.

Recent pipit sightings already entered in the log include birds seen at Prince Olav Harbour, Salisbury Plain, Sooty Bluff, Discovery Point, and on the Greene Peninsula close to the Nordenskjold Glacier.

The bottles of champagne offered by the South Georgia Association for the first nest found on the Thatcher Peninsula and by SGHT for evidence of breeding birds in Phase 2 area of rodent eradication project, the area of the island to the north-west of Thatcher and Mercer Peninsulas, are yet to be claimed.

Dates For Your Diary

Trailing the Albatross, a talk by the artist Bruce Pearson, will be the main presentation at the South Georgia Association AGM on Friday 16th May. Bruce Pearson is a world-renowned wildlife artist who started his professional career at Bird Island 40 years ago, living and working with wandering, black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses. He returned to South Georgia recently by yacht and cruise ship to revitalise his passion for these wonderful ocean wanderers and their magnificent surroundings. The talk will be illustrated with images painted in the field.

Non-members can attend the AGM which will be held at the Royal Overseas League, London. Tickets cost £18.00 per person.

For enquiries please email Fran Prince.

Reflections on Captain Cook: The National Maritime Museum Cornwall (Falmouth, UK) has a talk entitled ‘Reflections on Captain Cook’, which explores the extraordinary life, personality and career of Captain James Cook. Join David Pollard as he tells the story of Cook’s life: from his humble beginnings as the son of a farm labourer to fame as the man who discovered more of the earth’s surface than any explorer in history. Discover Cook’s legacy in times of change and divided opinions. Talk starts at 6pm Wednesday March 26th. Find out more here.

One of the first events to mark the centenaries of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition will mark the sailing of Endurance from Plymouth. The three-day event will be centred on the Duke of Cornwall Hotel in Plymouth, where Shackleton and several of the crew stayed prior to the ship’s departure.

‘Plymouth Shackleton 100’ is from August 6th- 8th and includes a black tie dinner, lectures and shows, and a re-enactment of the ship sailing by a tall ship. Register your interest with: Paul Coslett, DCPS Events Organiser

The two-part documentary on whaling made by KEO for BBC Four is now expected to be shown in June. The film crew visited South Georgia earlier this summer and during filming in Scotland and elsewhere interviewed several people who were involved with whaling on the island.

You can see some photographs the film crew took during their visit here on Flickr here.

The BBC 2 series ‘An Island Parish’ will focus on Reverend Richard Hines who is minister to the largest Anglican parish in the southern hemisphere; the Falkands and South Georgia. The broadcast date for the six-part series is yet to be announced but will include his visit to South Georgia at Christmas to celebrate the centenary of the Grytviken church.

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